Posted by: lklinger2013 | September 15, 2013

I am not Dr. House (and I don’t have Typhoid).

My medical Korean is not good. I can fill out a very simple patient information form, make an appointment,  say what body part hurts, and ask for medication. I tried to donate blood, but was told to come back with a Korean because I couldn’t answer all of the screening questions.

A couple of years ago, while preparing for a trip to Malaysia, I went to a nearby hospital (which, I assumed, had a vaccine clinic somewhere).  At the information desk, I asked about a typhoid vaccine and the man sent me to the emergency room. I sat on a gurney, surrounded by people with actual medical emergencies, and filling with a growing certainty that I was in the wrong place. Finally, a doctor asked me (in English): “Why do you think you have typhoid?” I explained that I was looking for a vaccine, had even shown the info desk guy the word “vaccine” in my phone’s dictionary.  The doctor told me the name of a clinic that did vaccines. I was not charged for this visit. Not even a “wasting a doctor’s time with stupidity” fee.

I went to the clinic yesterday to get a prescription refill. There was another foreigner there, who was obviously in pain. Let’s call her Z.  Unfortunately for Z, the doctor working there that day didn’t speak English well (or was uncomfortable doing so). the doctor and nurses asked me to translate. I did the best I could (which was barely adequate.

I’m glad she’s going to be okay. I’m  disappointed in my  reaction to her predicament. I froze. I avoided looking at her, telling myself I was respecting her privacy, but really not wanting to look at pain. I’m  proud that I was able to help, even a little. I’m ashamed that I didn’t volunteer. I had to be asked. I didn’t so much rise to the occasion as un-slouch a little.

Children of immigrants do this sort of thing all the time. Lots of them grow up translating for their parents, at hospitals, schools,  banks and so on. When I worked as a writing tutor at a uni in Brooklyn, one of my students, whose family was from Yemen, wrote and spoke about translating for her family during her younger brother’s many hospitalizations. This shaped her life. She wanted to work in a medical field. I have a lot of respect for someone who can translate in stressful situations like that.

It’s a good thing I didn’t go into medicine. I have no bedside manner. When I see someone in distress, I don’t know what to say or do. I feel like I should pat the person’s shoulder or say something sympathetic (oh, you poor thing!) or reassuring (there, there! It’s going to be alright), but I can’t. The words stick in my throat. I sit or stand stiffly, looking sideways, not touching.

Here is how I  (try to) comfort people: I give them information. There is a clinic in that building. Such and so doctor speaks good English. You don’t need an appointment.  There is a pharmacy on the corner.  I might share something I did or thought or felt in a similar situation. Sometimes, I offer a bandage or a painkiller, if I happen to have one.

Anyway, it was my turn next. The doctor thanked me and said that his English was not good. Hangukmal chal mot heyo (I cannot speak Korean well), I replied.  I asked for a refill of the usual prescription. There was another thing I wanted to ask about, but I decided to wait until the other doctor (whose English is better) was there.

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